Today I am looking at the latest reprint from the British Library Crime Classics series. Carol Carnac was one of Edith Caroline Rivett’s pennames, and she has already been reprinted in the British Library’s series under her pseudonym E. C. R. Lorac. Her series sleuth under the Carnac name is a Chief Inspector from Scotland Yard called Julian Rivers. The background to today’s read stems from Carnac’s own love of skiing and Crossed Skis is in fact dedicated to the skiers she went on holiday with the year before she wrote the book.
The story opens innocently enough on New Year’s Day as Bridget Manners gets into a flap ensuring the large skiing party she is organising all get together and on their way without anyone or anything being forgotten. As the party of 16, (some of which are last minute replacements for those who could not come after all), make their way to Lech am Arlberg in Austria, the narrative switches between them and an investigation Rivers is involved in. A Bloomsbury boarding house is discovered to be on fire and when the fire is finally put out a man is found dead in one of the rooms. Was he sufficiently intoxicated to have caused his own death with the gas fire? Yet the local inspector notices in the mud a strange impression made by a ski stick. Why is such a mark there? The question then arises of whether the corpse is the dead lodger. Or has he left things to appear that way? After all the body is unidentifiable. Naturally knowing about the skiing party, the reader will at once know the need to spot the killer the amongst the group, the police obviously take longer to arrive at this conclusion. But who is sailing or in this case skiing under false colours?
When I first learnt that this was a skiing themed mystery I automatically thought of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski (1959), yet Carnac’s earlier work, to my delight, has a more unusual structure. The most unusual aspect is the fact that the murder occurs off page before the book has even begun and contrary to all group themed mystery novels the skiing party for most of the book get along nicely with each other. I felt this was because they are unaware of the death and because the death does not take place within their trip. So the way Carnac introduces an increasing undercurrent of tension within the skiing party is very cleverly done. (I won’t spoil for you how she does so).
I also enjoyed the irony that whilst the police are building up to the idea of their wanted man having joined a skiing party, the skiing party themselves, on the way to the resort, joke around with the idea of passport photos not looking like the person they are for, as well as the idea of how whilst they’re all friends or friends of friends some of them could easily be assuming a false identity.
The narrative switches well between Rivers’ investigation and the skiing party’s holiday and I felt they complemented each other effectively. When progress is made at the London end of the story, the information you learn from it can then be used to assess the skiing party when the narrative switches back to their storyline. I was particularly impressed with how Carnac builds up the police investigation making their theory creditable.
Although it is 1952 and WW2 is over, its presence is still very much felt, in everyday life and in the people who lived through it. Carnac also weaves in the cultural anxiety of the Iron Curtain and the notion of communist sympathisers defecting across the border. Though I wouldn’t say this element overtakes the plot.
The skiing party in the book mirrors the number of people Carnac skied with in real life so there are 16 skiers. This is a large party number, so quite a few fall by the wayside when it comes to the reader’s memory. However, I don’t think this matters too much when it comes to keeping up with the plot as Carnac focuses your attention on a specific smaller number of characters. Eventually the Austrian side of the story has to merge with the London one and personally I felt this was a little rushed. Although I did enjoy how some of the skiers get clued into their being a police interest in their party, but they are unsure why. You begin wonder whether their curiosity will spoil the plan devised by the police. When it comes to identifying the murderer I think the reader will be able to narrow it down and then select the right person. Some of Carnac’s clues make this quite an easy job to do, but I enjoyed having other clues brought to my attention at the end of the book which I had not picked up on. So all in all a good read.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)